It started in November when my mom declared she wasn’t putting up a Christmas tree this year.
“What?! No tree?” I stammered. “But why?!”
In my shock and dismay all I recall is, “Because, blah blah blah, time involved, blah blah blah, getting older, blah blah blah, Christmas.”
For weeks I’ve tried whining/coaxing/coercing/guilting my mom into changing her mind. (Very adolescent of me, I know.) I’ll give her points for consistency—she’s not budging: “I’ll decorate the house, but I’m not putting up a tree.”
Her decision would perplex—but not bother—me if we weren’t planning to spend Christmas day at my parents’ house. Perhaps I’ve carried on a bit too much because my exasperated mother finally said to me, “You of all people know that Christmas isn’t about a tree!”
Ouch! More points for Mom.
Introspective as always, I pondered why I’m so disturbed by her lack of a Christmas tree.
As I lay on the metaphorical therapist's couch, my inner shrink probed, "Tell me about your childhood."
A memory triggered of a Christmas we spent in Florida when I was about 13. It's not-so-affectionately been named the Worst Christmas Ever (WCE for short). My family and I drove 20-some grueling hours from New Jersey straight through to Boca Raton (which in itself is a traumatic memory) and arrived at my grandfather’s house exhausted but excited.
“Where’s the Christmas tree?” my sister and I asked as we looked around the small house—as if it one had to search hard to find a large evergreen covered in decorations and bright lights.
“It’s out there on the patio,” my grandfather’s wife Minnette said.
My sister and I ran to investigate. And, there it was—a citrus tree strung with white lights. No decorations, no tinsel, no star on top. In a room that technically wasn't even part of the house. We were crestfallen.
“No Christmas tree?!” my sister and I stared at each other in disbelief.
It didn’t help our already battered Christmas spirit when moments after opening gifts on Christmas morning, Minnette announced, “OK kids, pick up your presents and put them away. Company’s coming.”
I still feel the sting of the Christmas that wasn’t. (Although, in all fairness to Minnette, she was Jewish).
The other day my sister and I talked on the phone about Christmas plans and commiserated about my parents’ lack of a Christmas tree.
“It’s like Christmas in Boca,” she said. Turns out I’m not the only one who still feels the sting.
So, is Christmas really Christmas without a tree? (Or decorations or carols or cookies?)
That’s when I had a revelation—which was probably more a stating of the obvious than a deep insight. Understand, I love Jesus and I’m excited about his birth. I’m truly filled with awe and wonder that God sent Jesus as He did—every day of the year. But Christmas as I know it IS about more than the baby in the manger.
It’s an emotional touch point of my year. A cozy blanket of memories I snuggle into. A binding of family and friends. A revisiting of old traditions and making of new ones. It’s not so much about the presents, but the experiences.
Experiences set on a backdrop of Christmas decorations and twinkly lights, music and mistletoe, candles and cookies. And the center of it all is a Christmas tree. Our Christmas tree.
Since before we were married, Dan and I have collected ornaments from our various travels. As we unpack them each year, we unpack two decades of memories. Of life lived well. Our tree is the story of us—first two, then three, now four. We choose "to tree" with enthusiasm.
But, my parents are entering a new phase of their lives. It's likely they'll make more "cut backs" that will upset my traditional expectations. Maybe one day, Dan and I will choose to scale down Christmas or (gasp!) even forgo a tree.
For now, while I'm disappointed I'm not such a fool as to think we're heading toward WCE: The Sequel. Christmas in New Jersey (at my parents') will be nothing like Christmas in Boca. It will be festive and beautiful and lingering—and Jesus-focused. And no matter what emotional attachments I have toward the "props" of Christmas, I realize it's our being together that will make Christmas joyful.
Every year, it seems, the days go faster and faster. The seasons turn one into the other—from barrenness to fullness and back again. I find myself trying to catch the sands of time and stuff them back into the hourglass. To no avail.
While this year I eagerly welcomed the coolness of fall after a blistering summer that overstayed its welcome, it seems that just last weekend we celebrated Labor Day at the pool with our friends. How did we get from back-to-school to apple picking to Halloween to Thanksgiving in record time? And when did Halloween (a holiday of demons, monsters, fear and dental nightmares) manage to garner so much attention and hoopla? While every year poor Thanksgiving has to fight harder and harder just to get noticed: I feel it wanting to yell, "C'mon people! Just one day of thankfulness is all I ask. One day!"
Yet, no sooner do we push back from our collective tables stuffed with turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, than the gun sounds and we're off—rushing headlong into Christmas.
By the time my family and I got home from our Thanksgiving weekend at Grandma's I felt like I was already behind. "Only 29 days until Christmas," my inner elf proclaimed. "There's so much to do, decorate, buy, bake, wrap and make merry."
"But, I don't even 'feel' like it's Christmas." I complained.
"That doesn't matter. Time's a wasting. Get busy." He/she replied
"Wait a second!" I countered. "First of all, I don't think elves are that bossy. And second, I'm not heading down that path anymore. I learned two words in the last few years that have helped me get off the treadmill of Christmas crazy—simplify and refocus. I don't care if everyone around me is freaking and stressing out, I'm not going there!"
"Scrooge!" My inner elf accused.
You see I've finally figured out, to the depths of my being, that while the "extras" do make Christmas bright and beautiful, they're the icing on a marvelous and spectacular Christmas cake.
And the Christmas cake without a doubt is a baby. And not just any baby, THE baby.
The God of the universe, set aside His majesty and power to send his only son as a little baby. Born not in a castle to royalty, but to a teenage mom and a blue-collar worker…in a smelly barn…without fanfare or pageantry.
No matter how hard I try to understand, it doesn't make sense. And yet this happened exactly as God decided it should. His perfect plan—thousands of years in the waiting—perfectly fulfilled as God intended. In Jesus. Light of the world. Emmanuel. God with us.
Because "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:16-17)
We make Christmas so complicated and stress-filled. Was that really God's intention when He sent His son? The words of John 3:16 remind us of how simple, yet how profoundly life-changing God's gift is.
While I have decorated for Christmas, and it's beginning to feel a bit like Christmas, when I pause to ponder the baby in a manger it's then I'm filled with awe and wonder and amazement. A little gift that changed us, changed me, forever. Christmases come and go, but the wonder of Emmanuel—God with us—is never out of season.
Two years ago Advent Conspiracy (adventconspiracy.org) and their original video totally changed my outlook on Christmas. Here's their updated version.